A day or two at The Machrie Hotel is all it takes to understand why so many who visit Islay leave a piece of their heart behind.
The idyllic isolation from the everyday would, on its own, be the perfect tonic to the bustle of modern life. But when you combine that with the natural wonder, beauty and kindness you find here, it adds up to something unique. It’s a place where you can both lose yourself and also find the time and space to remember what’s most important. Science will tell you it isn’t possible for 24hrs here to last any longer than those elsewhere, but that’s certainly how it felt during our time at The Machrie Hotel.
This was not my first visit to this Hebridean island or, indeed, to The Machrie. The last I had come as a child travelling with my family for a wedding three decades ago. In those days, sheep roamed the fairways and the bath water ran peat-brown. Back then this was a wild and untamed links course. As a 10-year-old, my father and I walked back from the course having run out of golf balls after one blind shot too many. Its reputation had been as a true wilderness golf course, as infuriating as it was enchanting.
There was no shortage of history, however. In 1901, 10 years after The Machrie Hotel was founded, it hosted what was then the world’s richest golf event. Harry Vardon, James Braid and John Henry Taylor battled it out for £100. How times change.
The spirit of that golf course, the very best of it, remains. The rugged beauty of The Machrie is every bit as spectacular. The towering dunes which frame many of the greens and fairways here and lend shape, character and adventure to DJ Russell’s new layout, are reminiscent of the great Irish links at Lahinch, Ballybunion and Doonbeg. The comparisons don’t end there.
Finding the words to convey the splendour of the redesigned links at The Machrie isn’t easy. Until you stand there, feel the breeze from Laggan Bay, watch the waves rolling onto the purest stretch of beach you’ll ever see from the 7th tee, words alone can’t do it justice. But as golf experiences go, it’s up there with the very best you’ll find anywhere in the UK and Ireland.
David Foley, the charismatic head professional at The Machrie, walks us around the site with an understandable and tangible sense of pride. He is the consummate host and so obviously passionate about this place. He is also hugely well-respected across the game, so much so that when he decided to leave his position at Dromoland Castle in Ireland after 20 years to come to Islay, people sat up and took notice. The arrival of acclaimed course manager Dean Muir, who left Muirfield after 17 years, had the same effect. “The chance to be part of something so special from the beginning doesn’t come along very often,” says David. “When I heard the vision the owners had for the place and saw their passion, it wasn’t a hard decision.”
As we emerge from the ferry we notice every passing driver is waving at us. Is something wrong with our car? Do they think they know us? “That’s the Islay wave,” says David with a smile, referring to a long-standing tradition among the people here. “A friend came over from Ireland not long after I started here. He noticed everyone was waving at me as I we drove around Islay and said ‘jeez, David – it didn’t take you long to make friends with everyone on the island.’ He thought I knew everyone!” It’s something we loved and hope never dies. A charming reflection of the warmth and trust people have in each other here. Make sure you look out for it and join in when you visit Islay. Driving on the mainland will never be the same again.
The owners David mentions are Baroness Sue Nye and her husband Gavyn Davies. They are rarely away for long, splitting their time between London and Islay. Golf, and The Machrie Hotel in particular, are close to their hearts after a life when sleep must have come well down the list of priorities. Sue was political secretary and a key advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Gavyn is one of Britain’s most successful economists and a former BBC chairman. We run into Sue as she walks her dogs out on the golf course. Having once sworn golf was not for her, she has – understandably – been won over by the beauty of the surroundings at The Machrie and can often be seen playing a few holes at magic hour. Gavyn is, by his own admission, obsessed with links golf. He has played almost all of Scotland’s best and his pride in the maturing layout at The Machrie is well-founded. This is a man who knows a great golf course when he sees one. And now he owns one of them.
Every detail has been considered. The practice facilities are superb, from the practice ground to the myriad of short game areas and putting greens (including an homage to The Himalayas at St Andrews). There’s a cutting-edge Trackman studio here which means even in the wildest of weather, golfers can play a course of their choice. And that’s to say very little of the magical ‘wee course’, a 6-hole par-3 playground which is endlessly entertaining and on which we spent hours of evening fun.
What of the main event? This course itself treads the line beautifully between presenting top players with a rigorous examination and allowing golfers who are less concerned by their scorecard to walk off the 18th green wearing a broad smile. From the tips, the course measures 7,024 yards but four teeing grounds on each hole providing fantastic variety from front to back. Some 34 bunkers have been added in the past year, although you will be hard pushed to pick out the new from the old.
Architect DJ Russell has retained the soul of this links. It still feels like golf as it was – raw and pure – and it still demands creative shotmaking which embraces and works with the slopes, the bumps and the humps. You will still find the odd blind shot, although most have gone, but where you do there is now room for strategic thinking to overcome the challenge. Working back from the pin position on the green will tell you where best to position the ball from the tee to find an unimpeded view of the putting surface. The eccentricity may have departed The Machrie but the wild wonder remains. It’s just a fabulous course.
The stretch from the par-4 6th through to the 9th green runs right alongside the seven-miles of unspoiled beach (know as the Big Strand) and is spectacular. The white sands and the crashing waves provide the most wonderful of distractions. But there are so many memorable holes here that I am reticent to pick any more from the crowd. You can do that on your own.
Machair, after which this place is named, is a Gaelic word for a windblown, salty grassland abundant with wildflowers, birdlife and beauty, with dunes rich in colour. When the harebells are in bloom, the bedstraw glows yellow and the larks and lapwings fill the air, there are few places like this. The Machrie’s ecosystem is created by the prevailing winds of the North Atlantic and areas like this are found on Scotland’s Western Isles and the west coast of Ireland, where you’ll also find the likes of Lahinch.
Like that golf club, The Machrie is devoid of pomposity and snobbery. There’s a connection with the people of Islay, both young and not so young, who are being made to feel that, once again, The Machrie belongs to them and to this island, not just those of us who come from further afield.
Sure, Islay isn’t around the corner for most, but there won’t be a moment when you regret making this journey. The magic of this place is because of that separation from the real world. It’s why we, like so many before us, left a little piece of our hearts on Islay. But rest assured, we’ll be back soon to collect it.
*Ben Smith was a guest of The Machrie Hotel